A Summit in a Glass House

Radio Erena: 04 February 2020

Three African leaders met while the capital of one of the leaders’ countries was racked by explosions. The other leader, while abroad, ordered his security forces to carry out a “wave of arrests.” The third leader hosted the summit on a top of a dungeon, where thousands languish in prison cells. How can a summit be hosted on top of a dungeon with prison cells in more than one place?

This surreal summit took place in the Eritrean capital Asmara which hosted this tripartite summit of Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki, Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo and Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed on 27 January. The three leaders agreed to consolidate cooperation against terrorism and to fight human trafficking and regional instability with a dream-like promise to extend cooperation to other countries. Asmara’s summit is the third, the first was also held in Asmara in September 2018, the second was held in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, two months later.

Each of these countries is like a glasshouse: fragile, but opaque. The host country, Eritrea, is the worst prison in the continent with opposition leaders and journalists jailed incommunicado for the last nineteen years. What prolongs the ordeal of the imprisoned and their families is the fact that there is no indication or gesture that they will be released soon.

Over in Ethiopia, the prime minister ordered the arrest of many opposition leaders before joining the summit. The arrests aroused wide criticism from both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Reporting from Addis Ababa for the Africannews.com, Abdur Rahman Shaban quoted the Director for East and South Africa in Amnesty International Deprose Muchena as saying, “The government’s return to making mass arrests of opposition activists and supporters is a worrying signal in Ethiopia. These sweeping arrests risk undermine the right of freedom of expression and association ahead of 2020 elections.” Observers have previously warned that the Nobel prize winner leader may face tough times ahead as elections draw nearer. The same observers said that he may crack down heavily on his opponents, and this is what seems to be taking place at the present.

In Mogadishu at the same time as the summit was taking place, a car bomb exploded killing one person and injuring a police officer. In that country, during the week of January 21 to 28 January, 36 persons lost their lives in several attacks carried by the Al- Shabab rebel group. The Somali capital is among the most insecure places in the world. Yet, the president is hopeful that his country has something to offer in this summit and similar meetings.

In reality, what have these three leaders to offer to their region and their continent? Looking at the matter from the nearest capital Djibouti, little seems to be expected of such summit. The Djibouti-Eritrean relations are their lowest ebb, thanks for the tough stance of Asmara regarding the settlement regarding the border dispute between the two countries. Sudan was also absent from the summit, without any clarification by the host state on the absence of two important neighbors from the meeting, though the leaders have given statements at the end of their previous meeting that they will do their best to open the forum for other participants.

In addition to their internal dilemmas, these three states share divergent diplomatic relations that impact their relations. On one hand, Eritrea has good relations with Egypt which is embroiled in a protracted dispute with Ethiopia over Ethiopia’s Nile River dam. On the other hand, Somalia’s relations with Egypt are strained because of the close relations between Somalia and Turkey. These strained relations infuriate the host country Eritrea. With each country facing a different direction than the other’s, little is expected of this alliance.

Forthcoming elections in Ethiopia and the turbulent events in the region will no doubt determine the very existence of this ephemeral political venture.

By Fathi Osman